Temping in the Office of the Past
Whenever I see "Carmen" I am reminded of the factory-like, New York office where I worked in the summer of 1965. Like Bizet's tobacco factory, it was hot (there was a drought and air conditioning usage was rationed to save water, the city's slogan was "Don't flush for everything"), the workers were all female, and life was startlingly real outside the doors we would rush through at 4:45 in the afternoon.
Johnson was president, the war in Vietnam was "escalating," and the Olin Mathiesson Chemical Corporation, a major gun powder producer, hired me, through the Olsten temp agency, to tear carbon papers from bills of lading and stuff envelopes seven hours a day, at $1.35 a hour ($.10 above the minimum wage).
I was 18 and had just finished my freshman year of college. In those days young women were called girls, and I was very much a girl. I was not in love, I do not think I thought about love. A stranger to passion, but not to the joys of making out in the back seats of big American cars, my disappointments were not deep, my faith in my future infinite.
Back then jobs were plentiful and rents were cheap. It took me one day to find work, one week to find a three-room, furnished apartment on West 20th Street, two subway stops from Greenwich Village, for $80.00 a month. I shared the apartment with Terry, another college girl in New York for the summer. Terry knew how to type and found a job as a secretary. She started in her office as a temp, but her boss decided to hire her full time without paying the agency fee. That meant she could not receive any phone calls at the office. One never knew when the agency would be calling to see if she was there.
Every morning, dressed in a skirt and blouse or dress and wearing nylons, despite the heat, I would take the subway to Columbus Circle and walk west on 57th Street to 10th Avenue to an immense four-story loft building where Olin had its billing department on the third floor. The first two floors were a Thom McAnn shoe warehouse.
The modular office had not yet been invented. I worked in a completely enclosed room in the middle of the floor that, except for its size, might have been a broom closet. I had never been in a room without windows before. It was something I never got used to. How often did I raise my eyes from my work and instinctively search the walls for sunlight!
As you entered this room you saw two rows of desks, all facing the door. On the right, where I sat at the last desk, were the five carbon-tearers. We were all between the ages of 18 and 20. Our job was to separate the carbons from a white original and three multi-colored copies. The blue copies went in one pile, the greens in another, and the yellows in a third. The whites we folded and stuffed into envelopes. When we had a respectable number of stacks of paper in front of us, we would bring them to baskets on a table near the supervisor's desk and pick up some more forms to be separated. I do not know what happened to them next.
The five desks in the left row supported comptometer machines which looked like a cross between an electric typewriter and a cash register. In those early days of office automation, they were a kind of "dedicated" bill processor. The women who operated these machines were the professionals to whom we unskilled carbon-tearers always deferred.
The supervisor's desk was on the wall next to the door, facing the workers, like a school teacher facing a classroom.
It seems incredible to me now, eleven women in one room, seven hours a day, five days a week, five of us doing totally mindless work, five of us having to concentrate on our work, and one watching. All in that closed space.
It seemed incredible to me then, too. I could tolerate the job because it was only for a few months, but what about the others? I don't remember anyone ever complaining. Three of the five carbon tearers lived at home, were engaged to be married or had serious boyfriends, and would, presumably, quit on marriage or childbirth. The fourth was a college-student temp like myself. The comptometer operators, on the other hand, were in their twenties and thirties and mostly married. (The husbands all worked in blue-collar jobs, which were common at the time but low status in those status-conscious years.)
New York is a profoundly ethnic city. Ethnic identity is as important there as public school affiliation is to the English upper-class. Ethnically, we were quite a mix. Our supervisor, Miss Glenda Briggs, was a very thin, white, southern lady of about 40. The comptometer operators: one Yugoslav, one German, a New York black, a Jamaican black, and a Puerto Rican. The carbon tearers: two Jews, two Germans, one Puerto Rican.
Socially, as a group, we had nothing in common. I had discovered "pot" that summer, and Terry and I spent most of our time hanging out in the Village. We both went to school in Michigan and friends from out-of-town were forever crashing in our apartment. Everybody played the guitar that year and real life started after 5pm. Monday mornings I would take a capsule of deximil before leaving the apartment. On speed, mindless, repetitive work can almost be satisfying. I never discussed my home life at the office.
But we talked a lot at work. Kelly, one of the comptrollers was pregnant. She had already had one miscarriage, so the talk had to do with her health and what the doctor had said. I listened hard to the secrets of womanhood.
Mostly the talk was about what each had cooked for dinner last night and what they would make this evening. Having no interest in food, this was very boring and depressing for me. Then it came about that I invited some friends for dinner, and I didn't know how to cook. I explained my problem to the women at work, and Marie, the Yugoslav, gave me a recipe for meatloaf (ground beef, bread crumbs, onions, eggs, and tomato sauce) that I still use.
The other major topic was television. Since we didn't have a TV, I couldn't participate in those conversations either.
The images come back, after twenty years, incompletely. But I remember these women better than any others I have worked with since. I remember that Janet, the Jamaican, always had a perfectly coiffed bouffant. One day I complimented her for it, and she laughed and said it was a wig. I remember that Gretchen, one of the Germanic carbon-tearers, was tall, pale, and flat, and had very thick ankles. She was also stupid and mean. Arrogance in her (in everybody?) was a display of a limited mind.
Marie called her 12-year-old son up every afternoon from the phone on the supervisor's desk. The conversation was always the same: what are you doing, what do you have for homework, I'll make chicken (or beef, or stew) for supper. How I pitied that child, how sad I was for the mother whose life revolved around him. (Now I, like Marie, call my son every afternoon, to affirm my existence, my real life, that has nothing to do with the work at hand.)
Karen, the other temp, was something of an enigma. She was the first person I had ever met who could only speak in clichés. She talked a lot, was friendly, but never said anything. Once I asked her what her agency was paying, and she answered, "I never discuss money." She had told us that she had been going to a college up-state but had had to move back home after her married sister had died. "But how did she die? " I finally asked. "Well," she drawled in her sing-song voice, "she went shopping for some panties at Gimbels, and she had just had a baby, and nobody knows what was going on in her mind, but she jumped in front of a BMT train."
Inez, the carbon-tearer with the most seniority, was my only real friend on the job. She was a 19-year-old Puerto Rican woman who didn't speak Spanish. She had suffered for this, she confided, because her teacher thought she was cheating by being in Spanish 1. Inez had gone to City College for one year and had majored in history. But she was now engaged to Robert, who was studying business administration, and she had dropped out to make some money so they could marry. But since she had taken an academic course in high school, she didn't have any marketable skills. We used to talk about what we read in the newspaper and play gin rummy during our breaks and lunch hours.
Glenda, our supervisor, sticks in my mind in her navy suits and white blouses and her prematurely white hair always perfectly curled. She had moved with the company from down South and lived with her mother, whom she had brought with her. In my eyes she had the strange power of tragic gentility and spinsterhood.
When a comptometer operator left her job, presumably for marriage or motherhood, the policy had been to train the carbon-tearer with the most seniority to replace her. The last woman to move up in the ranks this way was Carol a streetsmart black woman whose sharp tongue belied the women's sewing circle politeness that usually prevailed. But, as soon as she was trained, Carol gave notice. She was moving on to a better paying job with another firm.
Management's response to Carol's ingratitude was worthy of a modern, capitalist Soloman. Henceforth there would be no more on the job training; all future openings for comptometer operators would be filled from the outside. This was devastating for Inez who was next in line to be promoted, and everyone in the office, including Glenda, expressed their regrets.
Carol was replaced by Dorothy. Dorothy dressed like a beatnik--pierced ears, wide skirts--and was very unhappy with whatever it was that had fated her to this job. She bragged about her weekends at Cape Cod to women who had never heard of the place but knew she was bragging. She was extremely unpopular. Even I, who sympathized with her aspirations, was afraid to talk to her lest I became contaminated in the eyes of the others. Besides, I was the lowliest and youngest of temps, and she did not look to me for help.
Glenda, who was a very diplomatic boss who could act like one of the girls without ever forgetting who she was, also knew how to put people down. She had no use for Carol, or later Dorothy, the office rebels, and used sarcasm to turn everyone against them. It all seemed dreadfully unfair.
But the strongest image is of female comraderie and the giggling, the tensions, the occasional outburst of emotion. Normally we ate our sandwiches in the employees' cafeteria, but on paydays the 45-minute lunch break was extended to one hour, so we could cash our checks. Then (and also when it was someone's birthday) we would all go to lunch together at an Italian restaurant and even have a cocktail. How lovely it was to go out together in a group, laughing, taking up the whole sidewalk, in the sunshine!
--by Ana Logue